What does it take to build a great historical film? For you, I'm guessing it's an ability to reflect the director's vision with your relentless commitment to accurate design details. You certainly accomplished what you set out to do, giving us the dusty taverns and dilapidated farmsteads we've come to expect from a picture that takes place during the Depression. I'm just amazed director John Hillcoat wasn't able to capture the essence of your hard work in a more unique way.
The tale of the bootlegging Bondurant brothers was first told by their grandson Matt Bondurant in his novel The Wettest County in the World. The pressure to hold up certain truths of this "real-life" story may have subsequently weighed the filmmakers down. I don't know how faithful the adaptation is to the book, but the overall treatment seems to follow, with almost mathematical precision, the blueprint of standard American gangster films. The only problem, I think you'll agree, is that filmmakers shouldn't approach their craft the same way as you carpenters.
At least the foundation is strong--we have the gun-shy youngest brother, played by Shia LeBoeuf, trying to earn the respect of his brawn-over-brains older brothers. So he makes a deal with the devil (Gary Oldman as a brazen Chicago gangster), which allows the family moonshine business to boom--temporarily, of course. At the height of their power, we see your finest work: the elaborately-constructed distillery deep in the Virginia backwoods. This location provides our most unique moment of insight into their world, before the dreams they've built on the back of an unpopular and violently enforced law inevitably come crashing down.
For a film premiering at Cannes, I think it was reasonable to expect the director of The Proposition and The Road, in tackling this dark chapter in American history, to create a uniquely bleak picture. Instead, we get a passable and familiar portrait of prohibition outlaws who, unfortunately, are far less interesting than those already perfected on HBO's Boardwalk Empire. Even Guy Pearce, who undertakes an inspired physical transformation to create a dementedly eccentric law officer, feels like he's performing in the shadow of Michael Shannon's Nelson Van Alden. French audiences on La Croisette must have also had a case of deja vu after the similarly themed (and titled) Outside the Law premiered at the same festival two years ago, and was also about three gangster brothers rising to folk-hero status.
The world you built around these characters certainly feels authentic, but the story and execution feels all too common. Hillcoat and company have proven that they have the tools at their disposal to create something bold and memorable, but instead we get the architectural equivalent of a suburban home: sturdy, dependable, but, ultimately, uninspired.
Hope you're building a better future,